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Published July 12, 2009, 08:09 AM

Ducks in the wind: Research project explores impact of wind farms on nesting waterfowl

UND graduate student Tanner Gue, 25, is heading up the fieldwork portion of a two-year research project aiming to learn more about the impact of wind farms on the survival of nesting ducks in North Dakota.

By: Brad Dokken, Grand Forks Herald

Tanner Gue knows as well as anyone just how wet it’s been this summer in some of North Dakota’s prime waterfowl country.

That’s good for ducks, of course, even if it sometimes complicates life for people trying to study them.

A UND graduate student, Gue, 25, is heading up the fieldwork portion of a two-year research project aiming to learn more about the impact of wind farms on the survival of nesting ducks.

Gue’s research is taking place on a couple of wind farm sites near Kulm, N.D., in the southeastern part of the state near the South Dakota border. The project is a cooperative venture between several partners, including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Ducks Unlimited, the North Dakota Game and Fish Department, UND and the Prairie Pothole Joint Venture.

As part of the project, Gue and five student technicians trapped nearly 200 female ducks — mainly hen mallards, but also several blue-winged teal — this spring and fitted them with VHF transmitters to monitor their movements. About half the hens were nesting on wind farm sites, with the other half on “control” sites away from wind towers.

The research eventually will shed light on differences, if any, between the sites.

The tiny radios weigh 9 grams, about the same as a nickel, and feature a prong that’s inserted under the skin and sutured between the shoulders of the duck. The transmitters cost about $200 each and are designed to drop off after about 90 days.

“We get survival, we get nest location, we get home range size and we track them every day,” Gue said.

The transmitters also emit a mortality signal if the birds don’t move for eight hours. There’s been some mortality, Gue says, but that’s not uncommon for nesting ducks. None of the deaths resulted from collisions with the wind towers, he said. That’s good news, but it’s still too early in the research to draw any conclusions, Gue said.

“Right now, I’ve got my hands full just trying to get data in the computer,” he said. “I definitely need the fall and winter and the next field season” to learn more.

Ongoing research

Gue’s fieldwork is a continuation of research Ducks Unlimited and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service launched last summer in cooperation with NextEra Energy Resources, a Florida-based company that operates some of the North Dakota wind farm sites.

According to Scott Stephens, director of conservation planning for DU’s Great Plains Regional Office in Bismarck, the research is important because the Missouri Coteau region that’s attractive for wind farms also has some of North America’s best remaining waterfowl breeding habitat.

The coteau region cuts a swath across central North Dakota from the southeast to the northwestern part of the state.

“When these towers started going up, we knew we needed to learn if there were any negative impacts,” Stephens said. “We didn’t know because these are the first towers that went in where we have this high of a wetland density and waterfowl habitat. It was really our first chance to look at them and see how they interact.”

He said NextEra was quick to become involved in the project.

Counting ducks

Last year, Stephens said, the research involved a basic pair-count survey to look at breeding duck numbers on and off the wind farm sites.

The pair counts, he said, found similar duck numbers in both locations.

That led to the next phase of the research, which is Gue’s project on wind farms and waterfowl survival. According to Stephens, a key question was whether waterfowl would be so intent on breeding they’d be more susceptible to the wind towers.

While limited, the results to date bode well both for ducks and wind power.

“We would have been concerned if there had been complete evacuation of an area with wind towers when they went up with good wetland habitat and good grassland,” Stephens said. “That clearly seems to be not the case.

“We’re happy we didn’t see any big negative impacts.”

Gue, who’s been in the field since mid-April, said he had to make contact and get permission from more than 50 landowners before he could do anything because most of the wind farms are on private land.

That part of the project started last winter with lots of phone calls.

“The landowners, it all starts there,” Gue said. “Without permission from most of them, I couldn’t do anything.”

Wet year

This year’s wet conditions made trapping ducks a challenge, Gue said, but they still managed to come close to the goal of 200 birds. More recently, he said, the fieldwork has involved monitoring the transmitter signals both on the ground and occasionally from the air.

Gue said the field season will wrap up in late July or early August. Then, he said, it will be a scramble to crunch some of the data for a poster he’s planning to present with his UND advisor, Katherine Mehl, at the North American Duck Symposium set for Aug. 17-21 in Toronto.

He’ll be back in the field next year.

Stephens of DU said the research also is important for landowners with grassland easements from the Fish and Wildlife Service. Currently, he said, the service decides on a case-by-case basis whether to allow landowners with easements to have wind towers on their property.

The demand for easements is high, he said, as is landowner interest in wind towers. Stephens said it’s possible that hundreds, if not thousands, of wind towers could be going up across the coteau during the next few years.

“For organizations like DU, we don’t have any regulatory authority so we went into this wanting to get the information,” Stephens said. “If we ran into problems or negative impacts, we would have looked to get together with the wind industry to minimize those negative impacts or look for ways to mitigate the impact of the towers.

“We recognize that everybody uses power and needs energy, and everyone likes to turn on their lights at night,” Stephens said. “So finding ways that provide that energy that are sustainable and don’t have any impacts on natural resources and wildlife is what we needed to do.”

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